Nature is recognised as one of the world’s most prestigious and cited academic journals. It publishes weekly a set of original peer reviewed research articles with accompanying editorials, scientific news and comment.
Some of those comment articles have recently included a strange disclaimer.
In July 2020, a news item reported on “The gender gap in cystic fibrosis”. The article noted how women appear to have poorer outcomes than men, and die earlier,
A comprehensive analysis in 1997 of more than 21,000 people with cystic fibrosis in the United States showed a median life expectancy of 25.3 years for women and 28.4 for men1. The bacteria associated with lung decline and early death were also found to be present in women earlier than in men.
It then declared “(Nature recognizes that sex and gender are not the same, and are neither fixed nor binary.)”
Why it has put this odd disclaimer is not made clear. It makes no sense. The article is about differences in outcomes for people with different sexes (male and female). The article is quite clear about this. It talks of how “females could have a poorer response to  treatment”, and talks of genetic differences between the sexes. The article makes sense if you accept the common use of the word gender in the article title as a synonym for sex – maybe to assuage the more squeamish American audience.
But the odd disclaimer wants to make it clear that sex and gender are not the same. What the meaning of ‘gender’ is in the article then is not made clear. And it goes on to say that neither sex or gender are not binary, despite the whole article being based on the binary differential experience of women and men, boy and girls, males and females to the course of cystic fibrosis and its treatments.
An article published in August 2020 declares, “Sex differences in immune responses that underlie COVID-19 disease outcomes”. An editorial on this paper noted, “The researchers noticed that male participants’ typical immune response to infection differed from that of female participants, which could explain the more severe disease often observed in men.”
It then went on to add a similar disclaimer, ” (Nature recognizes that sex and gender are neither binary nor fixed.)”.
This time, gender is not mentioned (in any meaning). The article is clear this is about sex differences. Why the editorial diclaimer?
A third article entitled “Parents’ desire for one boy and one girl pushed trend in family patterns” discusses how the desire for British parents in the 20th Century to keep having children until they had at least one boy and girl could skew the population sex ratio. The article is clearly about male and female babies and yet a similar editorial disclaimer arises, “(Nature recognizes that sex and gender are not binary, and are not necessarily aligned.)”
Again, no explanation as to what a gender is and how it can be misaligned with sex. And no explanation as to why sex is not the binary as discussed in the article.
The only explanation for these strange and incorrect statements is ideological capture. These sentences are mantras of gender ideology – an ideology that claims that sex is not a reliable classification for humans. It is too vague, mutable and subjective to talk about reliably. The only reliable classification is ‘gender identity’ – whatever that is. This fashionable nonsense arose out of postmodernist inspired philosophies in ‘gender studies’ and sociology. As with much of these philosophies, it seeks to undermine meaning in words, to break apart and deny objective knowledge and classifications in an attempt to undermine ‘oppressive power structures’. It is a strictly political philosophy with activist aims that denies science can obtain reliable and objective knowledge and any such claim to knowledge is merely the speech of a dominant and oppressive class – usually white, heterosexual men.
But sex is, of course, fundamental to biology. No peer reviewed biology paper would characterise sex (at least in oogamous organisms like us) as not being ‘binary’, not being a material fact, and being mutable (except in sequential hermaphrodites). We cannot understand reproduction except in terms of its strict binary nature based on the fusion of two highly asymmetric haploid gametes. It is startling that Nature feels it needs to deny these things.
But Nature has form. Indeed. an opinion article published in Nature is an ideological favourite and a classic of this pseudoscientific genre.
In 2015, Claire Ainsworth published an article “Sex Redefined – The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.” It is an exemplar of the ideological and denialist approach to sex.
The Ainsworth article goes along the well established specious set of arguments you will find in ‘gender studies’- it seeks to undermine our ability to talk about sex. That approach goes like this:
- Say you are going to give the ‘old fashioned’ defintion of sex but actually set up a straw man. Instead of discussing how biologists define the sex of an organism in terms of the evolved development path it follows with respect to either gamete type (male or female), claim sex is a set of ‘sex characteristics’ like genitals, breasts and things like facial hair. Stick to humans.
- Note how sex characteristics vary enormously between individuals and many overlap between what we call sexes. There is no clear dividing line, for example, in bone morphology in humans for example. Therefore, there is no clear diving line between the sexes.
- Set up another false straw man of how karytypes are synonymous with sexes — that is XX/XY are defining of female and male rather than being one type of sex determining mechanism. Note how sex chromosomal aneuploidies mean sex cannot be binary. This is false and conflates atypical chromosome numbers with sexes.
- Come to the conclusion that sex is too vague, subjective and unreliable a concept to classify humans. Suggest, as Claire Ainsworth adds in her article payload, that we just ‘ask people’. That is their ‘identity’ is the only thing we can rely on.
So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.
This Nature article did not redefine sex as the title promised, but stripped it of meaning and rendered it entirely subjective.
Once you have done this, then you can dismantle women’s rights, sports and spaces (as sex is not meaningful), reject sexuality (because a person’s sex is not a reliable object of your desire) and dismantle protections and measurements to ensure fairness and representation for women in business and politics.
You also remove the ability for science to understand how your sex might have material and significant impact on your health and medical treatments.
And that is why this ideological capture of Nature is so worrying and depressing.